La Scena Musicale

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Met in HD: Puccini's La Rondine

Angela Gheorghiu as Magda in Metropolitan Opera's La Rondine

La Rondine, the "wall flower" among Puccini's operas, has barely a tenuous hold on the fringes of standard repertoire and for good reason. Others may disagree, but to my ears, this piece marks a low ebb in the composer's creative genius. Yes, it does have its moments, particularly the showpiece "Che il bel sogno di Doretta" and the splendid concertato in the Second Act, two genuinely inspired moments. But the rest of the piece does not really represent Puccini at his best, despite an occasional perfumy melody here and there. Also problematic is the rather thin, sugary plot where there is little action, particularly in Act One. The story bears some resemblance to La traviata except less developed, with elements of Strauss's Die Fledermaus thrown in for good measure. Frankly it pales in comparison to those two, far more successful operas. True, Puccini intended to write an operetta in the great Viennese tradition, complete with opulent setting, frothy melodies - but minus the spoken dialogue. In the end, the composer reverted back to the more conventional operatic form. There is even an alternate ending (to the one performed currently at the Met) where Magda dies. But either way, the end result does not measure up to some of Puccini's greatest creations, whether as an opera or operetta. It is no wonder that it has been absent from the Met stage since the 1930s.

The raison d'etre for the current production is Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu. Much like the Met Thais for American prima donna Renee Fleming, a production of Rondine can be successful as a diva vehicle. Gheorghiu has a particular affinity for this opera, having recorded it a decade ago and has previously sung it on stage. The Met spared no expenses in mounting a super-lavish production by Nicolas Joel to showcase the soprano. The decor is fin-de-siecle Art Nouveau, suitably French, with lovely imitations of Tiffany glass panels mixed in with splashes of early Deco. Some of the decor reminds me so much of the Franz von Stuck house (now a museum) in Munich I visited last summer! Some may criticize the Joel production for its rather cold aesthetics but overall it's really pleasing to the eye. The period costumes are uniformly gorgeous, the ones worn by Gheorghiu are particularly lovely, although the summer dress in Act Two with its uneven hemlines aren't terribly authentic.

As to the musical side of things - Peter Gelb went in front of the curtain to announce that Ms. Gheorghiu had a bad cold but didn't want to disappoint her fans so she consented to sing. Her first phrases were low, sounding uncomfortable in the chest voice. There wasn't much time before she had to sing the big aria, and it was clear that she wasn't sufficiently warmed up for "Che il bel sogno". With the big screen HD in Sheppard Grande, one could clearly see her working hard to get the saliva going to lubricate her throat for the aria. Other than a couple of pushed notes and a lack of high pianissimo singing, she did well under the circumstances. Her acting as Magda was endearing but not overdone, unlike Fleming's excessive posturing as Thais. Roberto Alagna was in acceptable voice, a little dry in spots and his forte top notes typically went sharp, but he was clearly enjoying himself as Ruggero, savouring the chance of singing with his wife. The two exhibited a dramatic and physical freedom with each other in art that is only possible (and probable) when such freedom extends to their personal lives as well. At one point, Alagna spontaneously kissed Gheorghiu's bosom - I ask you, when was the last time you see that happen between two singers onstage?!

The second couple were well taken by Marius Brenciu (Prunier) and Lisette Oropesa, suitably as - Lisette! The 2001 Cardiff winner Brenciu has a slender voice which he uses with taste and style, refraining from pushing it beyond its limits. Oropesa, who made her Met debut as Susanna in fall 2007 replacing a very pregnant Isabel Bayrakdarian, was a delicious Lisette, acting up a storm and her soubrette tailor-made for the part of the maid. The only superannuated singer onstage was Samuel Ramey as Rambaldo. His once impressive bass isn't what it used to be, and he wobbled his way through. But given the character of Rambaldo, this kind of imperfect vocalism actually adds to the role, and Ramey did well. Marco Armiliato deserves credit for treating the lightweight score with the respect of a work many times its status.

I saw it at my theatre of choice, the Sheppard Grande in North York. The facility was late opening this time. Given that the mostly elderly opera audience has a tendency to be early, the queue waiting to get in was extremely long by noon, and I heard quite a lot of grumbling. I spoke with Greg Buller, the theatre manager, who explained that he was short-staffed that day and for safety reasons he couldn't open the facilities any earlier. The transmission in Cinema #3 was perfect except for a few seconds worth of silence at the beginning of Act Three. The cinemas were as usual well maintained and spotless, no sticky floors anywhere that I was able to find. The service at the coffee-sandwich concessions continued to be on the slow side. Given that there are usually four or even five staff members behind the counter, service should be a lot more brisk. The washrooms had attendants stationed outside to take care of any special needs should they arose - a nice touch. The next show is the encore presentation of Damnation of Faust next Saturday, and the next new presentation is Orfeo ed Euridice on January 24.

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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Giacomo Puccini : La Bohème

« Simulcast » du Metropolitan Opera House de New York
Le samedi 5 avril 2008, à 13 h 30
Distribution (en ordre d'apparition vocale) : Ludovic Tézier (Marcello), Ramon Vargas (Rodolfo), Oren Gradus (Colline), Quinn Kelsey (Schaunard), Paul Plishka (Benoît), Angela Gheorghiu (Mimi), Meredith Derr (Parpignol), Paul Plishka (Alcindoro), Ainhoa Arteta (Musetta), Robert Maher (sergent des douanes), Richard Pearson (agent des douanes).
Production, mise en scène et décors : Franco Zeffirelli
Costumes : Peter J. Hall
Éclairages : Gil Wechsler
Chœurs et Orchestre du Metropolitan Opera House de New York dirigés par Nicola Luisotti

On murmure entre les branches que le film du simulcast de la représentation de La Bohème de samedi dernier est destiné à remplacer le DVD maison, qui date de 1982 : il s’agit de la version mettant en vedette Teresa Stratas, Renata Scotto et José Carreras, sous la direction de James Levine (Pioneer, indisponible). Sans doute est-il permis de préférer la distribution de 1982 qui, entre autres choses, comportait davantage de « grands noms » ou, en tout cas, de noms connus (en plus de ceux qu’on a déjà mentionnés : Richard Stilwell, Allan Monk, James Morris) que celle de 2008, où il n’y a guère que le Rodolfo et la Mimi qui soient des vedettes internationales.

Le divo, Ramon Vargas, a la voix de Rodolfo, mais pas le physique de l’emploi, au contraire de Carreras qui avait les deux. Mais cela on l’oublie vite, tant il est sincère, entier et au sommet de sa forme vocale. Certains lui ont reproché un contre-ut un peu trop prudent, dans le duo de la fin du premier acte, mais ce ne sont là que des vétilles. Il existe entre lui et sa diva une chimie particulière et qui se manifeste, avec splendeur, lorsque, ensemble, ils traversent divers états de la passion, les joies et les douleurs de l’amour.

Angela Gheorghiu, par ailleurs, a à la fois le physique et la voix de Mimi. Son instrument est un peu petit, mais elle compense ce défaut par sa maîtrise vocale et l’intelligence et l’intensité de son jeu de comédienne. À cet égard, elle rappelle Stratas, à cette différence près que le style dramatique de la chanteuse canadienne était beaucoup plus spontané, beaucoup moins calculé que le sien. Alors même que Mme Gheorghiu exécute le moindre geste, chante la moindre note à la perfection, elle nous laisse toujours un peu un retrait de l’illusion. C’est notamment le cas dans la scène finale où, alors que les autres personnages, bouleversés, se pressent autour de son cadavre, étendu sur le lit, elle seule n’a pas l’air de croire qu’elle est vraiment morte.

Le soprano Ainhoa Arteta n’a pas les moyens vocaux de Renato Scotto et ne sera jamais une artiste du même calibre. Mais elle a ce qui a toujours un peu manqué à Scotto : une sensualité authentique. Et quelle fougue ! À partir du moment où elle fait son entrée au deuxième acte, la scène lui appartient, et elle ne la lâchera pas, demeurant l’objet de l’attention universelle jusqu’au tout dernier moment, au risque même de compromettre la mise en scène.

Le public new-yorkais a réservé un accueil enthousiaste aux détenteurs de rôles « mineurs » (si tant est qu’il y en ait dans cette œuvre) qu’il connaissait déjà, tels le vétéran Paul Plishka, en Benoît et Alcidoro, et Quinn Kelsey, en Schaunard, et ce, en dépit de son physique pachydermique. Par contre, on s’est montré beaucoup plus réservé envers Oren Gradus. Le chanteur auquel on risque de s’intéresser de plus en plus, c’est le Français Ludovic Tézier, très admiré en Europe et même au-delà, grâce au DVD, mais encore inconnu de la plupart des opéraphiles américains. Or, il vient de démontrer ce qu’une voix splendide alliée à un solide métier d’acteur peut contribuer à un rôle comme celui de Marcello et, partant, à La Bohème tout entière, dont c’est l’un des rôles pivots. Il faut s’attendre à le revoir à nouveau, et dans des emplois de plus en plus importants, sur la scène du Met.

Au podium, Nicola Luisotti dirigeait comme s’il était en amour avec la partition.

Le jeune maestro (45 ans), originaire de Lucques en Toscane, s’impose depuis quelques années comme l’un des grands chefs italiens de sa génération. Il vient d’être nommé directeur artistique de l’Opéra de San Francisco pour la saison 2008-2009 et il faut s’attendre à ce qu’il devienne lui aussi un habitué du Met et de ses simulcasts, d’autant plus que son répertoire de prédilection est constitué en partie d’ouvrages qui laissent James Levine indifférent, en partie d’œuvres qui ont cessé de l’intéresser.

La mise en scène était celle de Franco Zeffirelli dans – il faut le préciser – sa version new-yorkaise, car c’est un fait que lorsque, en 1981, le Met a invité le metteur en scène florentin à monter une nouvelle production de La Bohème, il y avait déjà près de vingt ans qu’il travaillait à mettre au point son « concept » de l’œuvre, et il n’a pas cessé d’expérimenter depuis. En conséquence, vingt-sept ans après, « sa » mise en scène existe en de multiples variantes dont plusieurs ont mérité les honneurs de la vidéo, et dans certains cas plus d’une fois, comme c’est le cas de celle du Met. À force d’être trimballlée et imitée aux quatre coins du monde, elle est devenue « classique », la vision canonique, si l’on peut dire, d’un opéra qui lui-même l’emporte en popularité sur tous les autres. Le troisième acte a toujours été très admiré. Le premier, par contre, est un peu sombre, un défaut particulièrement accentué au Met samedi dernier. C’était alors exactement la 349e fois qu’on y montait la production en question. L’événement avait déjà, un peu plus tôt dans la semaine, donné lieu à une célébration qui marquait aussi la fin d’une ère. Zeffirelli a quatre-vingt-cinq ans et, quand il n’est pas occupé à prodiguer des conseils vestimentaires au pape Benoît XVI, consacre les énergies qui lui restent à tenter de convaincre l’industrie cinématographique de lui donner les moyens de compléter son dernier film, une suite à son grand succès des années 1970, François et les chemins du soleil.

-Pierre Marc Bellemare

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Saturday, April 5, 2008

Met Opera in HD: La Boheme

If there is one opera that qualfies as the all-time audience favourite, it is Puccni's La boheme. It is by far the most performed opera in the 125 year history of the Metropolitan Opera, surpassing other popular works the likes of Aida and Carmen. The current Met production by Franco Zeffirelli, first seen in the 1981-2 season with Teresa Stratas and Jose Carreras, is the most performed production in the history of this house. It has been given a total of 349 times! Think about it - the Met season is approximately seven months long, with seven performances a week. For the sake of simplicity of calculation, we are not going to worry about the two weeks in January (the last three seasons) when the theatre was dark. This means the Zeffirelli Boheme has been seen every night for a staggering eleven months and three weeks, equal to over one and a half Met seasons! It boggles the mind.

Zeffirelli with his super realism and the Met with its deep pockets are a perfect match - witness his Turandot, Tosca, Cav & Pag, and Carmen, all mega-productions that have become audience favourites. Critics on the other hand have not been so kind. Many complain that the massive and overly busy productions dwarf the singers, a criticism not ungrounded. Still for sheer opulence, you can't beat Zeffirelli. The other major criticism is his total lack of "concept" - again a valid comment. If ever there is an "anti-Regietheater Regie", it would be Zeffirelli, who is always faithful to the composer's original intentions. In a Zeffirelli production you won't find a Violetta dying in an AIDS ward, or a Don Jose being executed by a firing squad. For my money, there is always room for a traditional production, and this La boheme is as traditional as it gets.

This revival stars Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu and Mexican tenor Ramon Vargas. Joining them are Basque soprano Ainhoa Arteta (Musetta) and French baritone Ludovic Tezier (Marcello). The rest of the cast are made up of a mix of young artists - Oren Gradus (Colline), Quinn Kelsey (Schaunard) and a Met stalwart - Paul Plishka (Benoit and Alcindoro), all under the helm of Italian maestro Nicola Luisotti. It was shown today at the Sheppard Grande in four cinemas, a total of 1500 seats, all sold out in advance. The huge crowd was not disappointed. This performance was about as good as one is likely to encounter in the opera house these days.

The glamorous Angela Gheorghiu's Mimi is a bit too overtly flirtatious and calculating in Act One for my taste, although by Act Three, she was sufficiently tragic to elicit the sympathies of the most hard-hearted in the audience. Her singing was beautiful, although I find her timbre a bit cool and not sufficiently Italianate. She "chested" a few times in Act One, perhaps the voice was not yet sufficiently warmed up. Much of Mimi's music is written in the middle, an area of Gheorghiu's voice that is not ideally full. I would have preferred a modicum of portamento - it is a virtue, not a sin, in verismo and Puccini! Her Italian parlando lacks natural ease. (I admit I can't get the voice of Renata Tebaldi out of my mind when it comes to this role) Ramon Vargas may not have the most distinctive of tenor sounds, but overall, his Rodolfo was a pleasure. There was also good chemistry between these two.

The other couple were not on the same level. Soprano Ainhoa Arteta acted up a storm, but there was no hiding the fact that she made a shrill and quavery Musetta. There is a moment in Act Four, when Mimi asks "Chi parla?" to which Musetta replies "Io, Musetta". This is a moment when any half-way decent Musetta gets to show off her smooth legato. Well, this little phrase defeated Arteta completely. As Marcello, Ludovic Tezier's lyric baritone was pleasant if a bit anonymous, his acting insufficiently detailed, especially in his scene with Mimi in the opening of Act Three. There was no intensity coming from him; his facial expression was blank. He wasn't listening to her; he basically just put his hands in his pockets and stopped acting! Tezier was completely outsung by Quinn Kelsey, who was a particularly well sung (and well fed) Schaunard. To his credit, Kelsey, given his large size, managed the strenuously physical staging in Act Four without difficulty. Oren Gradus (Colline) lacked the sonorous bass necessary to make his Coat Song effective, something done to perfection in the past by the veteran Paul Plishka, now as Benoit/Alcindoro. A welcome addition to the roster, Nicola Luisotti conducted an incisive and lyrical performance, although I find his intermission interview and his body language a bit overly solicitous.

Like a comfortably cluttered and lived-in house, the sets in this Boheme is starting to look a tad frayed after so much use. Having seen this production a half dozen times at the Met, I have come to take this huge show for granted, so it was good to have the camera taking us backstage to witness the setup of the Cafe Momus scene, done in three and a half minutes - I was awe-struck by the enormity of the task. The videography was happily traditional here, unlike the quirkiness of the split-screen technology employed in Tristan. The Sheppard Grande audience should thank its lucky stars that once again, the satellite signal was flawless, with only a split second of frozen picture. I saw the show in Cinema Three, where the full house and the still air made it a little uncomfortable, especially for those sitting higher up. But other than that, it was an extremely enjoyable experience.

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